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Teach Your Children

Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

As is often the case, the name of this week's parasha is taken from a word in the very first verse: emor - "speak". In fact, the act of speech appears three times in this verse:

And God said to Moshe: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people (Vayikra 21:1).

The double "speak" is strange: The verse is unremarkable when it states that God spoke to Moshe; this is one of the more common formulations in the Torah, one we have come to expect. But the next two uses of the verb emor in this verse - translated here as "speak" and "say" - create a cumbersome textual passage that is uncharacteristic.

One possible understanding of this textual quirk is that the Torah's language creates an emphasis that might otherwise have been absent. By doubling the use of the verb, perhaps the message is that Moshe is charged with speaking to the kohanim in a way that will be heard, so that the message is understood, internalized and integrated.

Rashi offers an alternative explanation of this singular text. In his comments on this verse, he paraphrases a Talmudic passage that quotes this verse in a discussion regarding adults' responsibilities toward children (Yevamot 114a):

"Say [to the Kohanim …] and say [to them]," [This double expression comes] to warn (l'hazhir) adults regarding minors. (Rashi, Vayikra 21:1)

When taken at face value, Rashi's comments on this verse contain an uplifting message: Not only should adults take responsibility for themselves, they should invest in the next generation and guide the young and innocent away from sin. We might easily use this teaching as a springboard for a broader discussion concerning the importance of positive, proactive education and the need to take responsibility for the next generation. Such would be the thrust of the message of our verse - unless we actually consulted with the Talmudic text upon which Rashi based his comments.

In fact, the Talmudic discussion actually contends with a far more ominous topic: Our verse is quoted in a passage that analyzes a number of cases in which an adult may be tempted to actually cause a child to sin. Far from an innocuous or even uplifting discussion of the virtues of religious education, the Talmudic passage contends with cases in which adults actively and purposefully lead children to sin! As opposed to the lofty world of educational responsibility and values we thought we had discerned in Rashi's comments on our verse, the Talmud forces us to confront the loathsome case of an adult introducing a child to sin.

We may attempt to understand the mindset of the adults in the Talmudic cases and to rationalize their behavior: Perhaps the cases involve young children, not yet at the age of bar- or bat-mitzvah, who are not legally responsible or culpable for their actions. For example, when there is a limited amount of kosher food available, an adult might conclude that the best option would be to eat the kosher food and give the underage child something non-kosher.

This scenario inevitably leads to a more abstract, even philosophical discussion about the very nature of sin and its impact on the human being. Is sin merely a question of culpability? If the transgression is not punishable, is it of any significance? In more colloquial terms, can we say that sin is akin to the proverbial tree that falls in the forest; if there is no one to punish, does the sin make a sound, as it were? Or does sin affect the soul, leaving a mark or stain that is independent of culpability? The Talmudic passage in question seems to extrapolate an additional, even more far-reaching lesson from our verse: Causing someone to sin is akin to feeding them spiritual poison, and this behavior stains the soul of the instigator as well as the perpetrator - particularly when the transgression is committed by a young, unsuspecting and impressionable soul.

The conclusion we are forced to draw from a careful reading of Rashi's Talmudic source is that the first verse in Parshat Emor teaches responsibility: not, as we originally thought, that we must educate the next generation, but as a warning against corrupting the next generation and causing our children to sin. This message is far more poignant and perhaps more difficult to fulfill. Certainly, we teach our children to do good things and to avoid things that are religiously distasteful. The question is, do we transmit messages akin to "Do as I say, not as I do"? Are we somehow corrupting the next generation, causing them to sin through unspoken, non-verbal messages and by setting a poor example?

In Rashi's comments on the verse, he uses the term G'dolim, which we have translated as "adults"; this same term is also used colloquially to describe our great rabbis. The G'dolim have responsibility for the k'tanim, those who are underage or of lesser stature and learning. This past week we lost one of our G'dolim: Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, may his righteous memory be a blessing. I, along with tens of thousands of his students, can attest that Rav Aharon not only educated us, he "took care" of us spiritually. He was a living, breathing model of ahavat Torah, love of Torah learning and devout observance, as well as yirat Shamayim, God-fearing awe and respect for holiness. He shared with us his vision and served as a model for proper behavior, setting a very high benchmark for all Jews in the modern world - and he did all this with love, dedication, eloquence, humility and nobility. For this we will be forever indebted, and express our enduring thanks and love.

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